Episode #54: Leah Adams

An interview with Leah Adams. Leah is an in-demand skating photographer who has photographed for several top shows, including Champions On Ice and Skate For Hope. She also conceived of, runs, and manages Figure Skaters Online, which creates and hosts over 50 websites for both upcoming and established skaters. In other words, she’s one of those hard-working supporters of skating who works behind the scenes and never gets the deserved recognition. So I’m giving her a bit of recognition with this interview. Hear her tips on how she gets those great photographs, how her incredible generosity has helped skaters over the years, and how she pissed off Tom Collins. 51 minutes, 29 seconds.

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Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On her most embarrassing skating moment: That is a really good question. There was a time where Peter Carruthers, at Skate Canada, came over and was looking for someone to do a real quick question-and-answer. And I’ve got a credential around my neck so I try to be real low-key, and not attract too much attention. And he walks right over to me and starts asking me all these questions about, do you remember this, and who skated to it, and what was this music from. And me, I completely shut down because I felt like at the time this was inappropriate for a credentialed person. And then later on when people saw it on TV they thought it was absolutely fabulous that I couldn’t be myself, because normally I’m pretty, when I’m not credentialed I’m outgoing, I’m vivacious, I have this A-type personality. And here I was completely the opposite. So for me, that was embarrassing that I couldn’t be myself with Peter Carruthers.

On how she became a fan of figure skating: My first Nationals was in San Jose in 1996. Rudy Galindo came out and rocked it, it was so loud you could hear screaming outside the HP Pavilion [arena]. So what happened, my girlfriend wanted to go see Nationals, I knew nothing about skating and I really didn’t care, but she bought me an all-event ticket. I missed all practices, I didn’t care, she would call me, when are you going to show up, when you are going show up. Finally, I show up for opening ceremonies. I was in the arena not two minutes, not even in my seat, and I literally felt this wash over me. Now my husband told me, bring your camera, and I’d been shooting portraits for a long time. Well, I’m center ice, second row, and here are these beautiful costumes and fabulous makeup, and these physically fit, beautiful people. And well, it didn’t take long of course to get addicted, and from the get-go,  I can tell you from the very first day, it was an addiction that I haven’t been able to kick.

And then the most remarkable things happened. While I was there I took some pictures of Dan Hollander, took them home, got them processed, and took them back to the arena next day. And he’s sitting in the stands. So I just walked up to him — again, A-personality, A-type — and said, hey, I took these pictures of you last night. And he says sit down, so I sit down, and meanwhile he’s in medal position at this point. And I’m so intimidated because I don’t know what to say to skaters, I don’t know a thing about skating other than they have beautiful people who are physically fit. I couldn’t even carry on a conversation. And he says, these pictures are great. For somebody just starting out, these are really great. So in those days people threw things on the ice. So I went home, got a stuffed animal, came back the next day, and he medals, got a bronze, and I run to the boards to throw the animal at him. And he skates over to me, and here I am on national television. It’s like it was meant to be. So Dan and I became fast friends and we are still very good friends today.

On starting the Figure Skaters Online website: Being a little abrasive, I walked up to people and said, do you have a website. And you have to remember, in 1997, a lot of people weren’t into the Internet like they are now.  Shelby Lyons and Brian Wells, they were a pairs team, I knew they were struggling financially, so I approached them and asked if they did. A woman who worked with Tiffany and Johnnie Stiegler contacted me, she wanted to use my photos, and she had bandwidth, I had photos, we picked them up and then we had more bandwidth. So then I approached Shelby and Brian, and then John Zimmerman came on with his partner. There was just a lot that started, and I would just go out and approach [skaters] and say, look. There’s no fee. No advertising. We are not a, um, risqué kind of website. This is strictly for you. This is to help you, this is to support you. We don’t cost anything. Would you like to be on this website? Early on, we had [Elizabeth] Punsalan and [Jerod] Swallow. We had Tanith [Belbin] and Ben [Agosto] when they were just coming up. There are a lot of people who didn’t have the funding or who were not at the level yet. Naomi Nari Nam, I noticed her when she was in novice. She was early on. There’s been over 50 websites overall, I think we have more than 40 active right now.  There were so many sites when we were able to catch these people when they were younger. Mirai Nagasu, gosh, four or five years ago. So many that I’ve watched grow up before me.

And I did see that the media was evolving, and the USFS hadn’t stepped up. I felt like somebody needed to. And I had the financial means and these other women were kind enough to get us started, and that evolved into other people stepping up also.

On how the site for each skater is designed:  There’s an evolution here. Okay, I like orange and I like green. So let’s get started with that. What other colors do you like, what type styles, are there other sites you like that aren’t Figure Skaters Online. Sometimes the agent will get involved and have input into what the site should look like. Some want to be working with Tweets and adding on all the latest technology, and others want to let them languish, it’s a softer approach.

On the cost of maintaining the site: It started out small, and we added on, and we added on. And with the incredible team — these folks have slowly, they come to me and they have to ask for the money because we have to justify this, and they are always so giving of themselves that it’s hard to say no. So we just continue to go and figure out ways. Sometimes we have to have a fundraiser or a little auction. I support this through my photography sales, I support it through other earnings that I get that are not related to skating, but that’s the only way that it’s done. Rarely does anyone think — I’m not trying to be critical, but rarely does anyone think to say, gee, can we help you out a little bit. The whole idea is to make sure the skaters get support, it’s not about me getting financial support.

On being invited to go on tour as a photographer with Champions on Ice: There is not words to explain what it is like to travel with that group of folks and see them on such a different level, see them as people, see them in a casual relationship. Here’s a little anecdote. One year Tom [Collins, the tour producer] was chartering [planes], it was easier than going commercial and you don’t have to go through security. And to see that Michelle Kwan — how they revered her seat. She had her seat on the bus and on the plane, and nobody ever sat there. And it was just understood that this was Michelle’s seat. Now yes, we had a good time when we cut up and played tricks on each other, but to see — it’s like a family, it was so wonderful to have that intimacy and to see what goes on behind the scenes.

On pissing off Tom Collins by bringing a Stars on Ice bag on the Champions on Ice tour: So we were at the airport, flying wherever we were going, and I’ve got this Stars on Ice bag, and Tom saw it and he was beyond angry. It hadn’t even clicked in my head at all, but he said, that’s it, you’re done, pack your stuff, get back on the plane, you’re leaving. He was so angry at me. And I’m, I’m sorry, Mr. Collins, I’m sorry, and I’m crying, total mess. So, he thinks about it, and he says, well, you’re already here, we’ll work it out, I’m better now. Thank you so much, Mr. Collins. So the next day, we were leaving Atlanta, and we were going somewhere else on the bus, and I had gone to the front desk [of the hotel] and said, could you help me out, I need a gift bag. And I had taken the Stars on Ice bag and put it in the gift bag and wrapped it really nice. And so we all get on the bus and we’re all sitting there, and I remember Rudy [Galindo], and oh, it was just fantastic, and I stand up and I go, excuse me, everyone, excuse me, I have something for Mr. Collins, because what do you get a man who has everything? And I handed him the gold bag, and he opens it up, and it’s the Stars on Ice zipper duffel. The place erupted, it went crazy. And even Tom’s son said to me, you know, kid, you’ve got thick skin, and that’s good.

On letting skaters use her photos for free:  Carolyn Bongiorno’s Skate for Hope, she called a very well-known photographer, who gets paid a tremendous amount of money for his photography, compared to the level I’m at, anyway, and he didn’t even bother to return her call. She called to say I’m starting this event, it’s a fundraiser for breast cancer, and I’m just starting out and can’t afford to pay a lot. And when she didn’t hear back from him, she called me. And I said, what do you need, when do you need it, and how can I help you. Because my idea is, it shouldn’t be about the money, it should be about what we can do for the sport.

On what she would tell people wanting to take pictures at skating events:  What you need for photography is light. If you do not have light, you don’t have pictures. So ample lighting is the number one thing. Now the reason I probably can capture action shots more is, I go to practices. And I watch practice to see what’s going on, so I know when they’re going to be doing that wonderful element. I never shoot anybody going into a jump. They’re ugly. And the centrifugal force is horrendous when they’re spinning. So there are just certain things that you learn.

Good equipment is also important. My camera can shoot seven or eight frames a second. So you’re not going to be able to buy a point-and-shoot and catch anything more than an opening pose or a closing pose, because the cameras can’t load quick enough.

Get a good seat. If you’re sitting up in the 36th row it’s going to be a lot harder than if you’re in the 2nd row, because ice is white and it reflects light, and therefore your camera can work a lot faster than if you’re way far back. And read your manual. Understand how your camera works. You need to know your camera. A lot of people come to me and say, my camera won’t work. And the first thing I say is, did you check the battery? I always carry extra batteries.

And at Nationals, what I would recommend, the novices skate slower. Practice on the novice kids. Juniors are a little quicker. By the time you get to the elite level, the championship level, the skaters are buzzing around the rink and it’s a little harder to catch them. But the little novice guys, they’re easier to shoot.

On the USFS’ use of social media and technology, and its relationship with the media:  This is definitely something that could be stepped up. And yes, they’re on Facebook, and on Twitter, or whatever, and they’ve done a great job with those little things you hook on your ear, the Skate Bug, at Nationals so you can hear what’s going on. So they’re doing better, but there’s still tons more. And if I was the USFS, and I’m not, I would be coming to people like you, like me, like icedance.com, and saying, what can I do to help you? I have gone to events and seen fabulous celebrities — Burt Bacharach, his people came to me, it was an ice-skating show, and said to me, what can I do to help you get the best pictures so we will get the best publicity for our event. And I’ve never had that [at a USFS event]. If anything, it’s like, oh, we don’t know where we’re going to put the photographers yet.  I get it, and I know that the cameras have to go into place and you’ve got to get the Reuters folks in somewhere, I get that, but I know the sport. And when those Reuters folks will sit next to me and go, who’s that? Who are they talking to? What are they doing over there? And then you get pictures in the newspaper of somebody falling, or of snot coming out of their nose, or a crotch shot of a young woman. Those are pictures that I will never, never take.

About the Author
Yup, I’m a skating fan. But I’m a skater too. I compete nearly every year in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, and am always thrilled to see my other skating buddies there. In my real life I work in marketing for brands that make positive changes in the world, and a mom of two rambunctious boys.

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